Bites From a Breakfast with Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie, author of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel Midnight’s Children, was a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth this summer. He held a talk titled “Public Events, Private Lives” at the Spaulding Auditorium at the Hopkins Centre, where only two years ago he had given an impassioned speech calling for the return of magic to fiction. He also hosted a breakfast with a group of graduate and undergraduate students. MALS alumna, Preetha Sebastian, attended both. Here is her account of his visit.

On the morning of his recent public talk at Dartmouth, Rushdie met with a group of graduate and undergraduate students for breakfast at the Hanover Inn. His address at the intimate breakfast was in contrast to the talk at the Spaulding Auditorium, where a large crowd gathered to hear the writer speak. During his conversation with students, he shared how he identifies himself as a writer, his current interests in literature, the “definition” of magic realism, his insights on the writing process, and gave the gathering a prelude to the message he would convey in that evening’s public talk titled “Public Events, Private Lives.”

Rushdie, who was born and spent his childhood in Bombay, pre-Independence India, has now lived in New York City for around two decades. As a writer in the post-colonial era, he says that although he is often given the label of a post-colonial writer, he thinks of himself as a “writer of the big city”. “I think that the British empire feels like a long time ago. It’s almost as though we’ve entered another phase of ‘post-postcolonial’. I’ve lived just about all my life in one of three big cities. That sense of metropolis, where many kinds of reality meet, sometimes happily and sometimes unhappily, has very much become my subject; how different narratives can conflict and collide and interact.” Between Bombay and New York City, Rushdie received his education in the United Kingdom and spent a large amount of time in London, which is the third city he lived in. The writer pointed out that India, however, still features in his work quite heavily, saying, “I seem to be unable to write books that don’t have Indian-centric characters. I’ve tried, but it never really works out. So that origin in India is still somehow central to how I identify myself.” His 1981 novel Midnight’s Children, too, features Indian characters amid the Indian partition in the aftermath of colonial rule. A part of the book is also set in Bombay, a city that Rushdie remains the fondest of, even as he recalled how drastically it has changed since the time he lived there. “They now call the region I grew up in South Bombay instead of Bombay,” he said, remarking on how much the city had expanded.

While responding to a question on his current interests in literature, Rushdie laughed and began by saying, “First, you must know, I’m bad at George Eliot. I failed to finish Middlemarch a number of times.” The writer said that the work he is most inclined to read is usually work that is quite unlike his. “I’ve been reading a lot of Balzac and nobody ever compares my work to Balzac.” Then, referring to his new book The Golden House, Rushdie said that he thought he’d better read Dostoyevsky while writing it because the story has a lot of brothers in it. “Although it’s always good to read Dostoyevsky,” he remarked.

The writer voiced his deep interest in literature and translation, and spoke of how the current English translations of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are some of the best that there have ever been. He did, however, express his dismay at how translation isn’t as popular as it could be. “One of the bees in my bonnet is how little is translated. Under 3% of books published in America in a given year were written in a language other than English. If you compare to this to Western Europe, like France, the figure is close to 25%. So you feel American readers are really deprived of what the world is thinking about, in many cases, because of the lack of translation,” Rushdie said. He pointed out that, contrarily, that we are now living in the age of translators. “Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote is by far, by a million miles, the best translation out there, which makes it read like a contemporary novel. I strongly recommend it. The first time I read Don Quixote, which was a Penguin Classics translation, it was of such leaden prose. It in a way destroyed one’s feeling for the book. To go from that to this makes the book come so much more alive,” the writer said.

Rushdie also spoke of how he had initially resisted reading Elena Ferrante, a writer whose identity and true name is secret, because it seemed at first sight to be a development out of what the French called autofiction. “What interested me in her is that when a controversial exposé on her identity came out. I saw that the characters she was writing about was completely unlike her true background and that is really profoundly imagined fiction,” he said. Ferrante’s reported true identity has nothing to do with her the characters she writes about in an autobiographical fashion, such as growing up as the daughter of a local seamstress in post-war Naples in the novel Frantumaglia. The person behind Ferrante is said to have been born into a Polish German family that moved to Italy when the writer was three.

“I am much more interested in reading things that I don’t know. I don’t read to keep up anymore. There’s a point when you stop doing that. My view is that if a book is good it will hang around and I’ll get to it, and if it’s not good then it will go away and I will have saved myself some time,” Rushdie joked.

He reiterated the importance of international fiction and spoke of how he impresses upon his students at New York University the importance of reading outside their own language. “It makes one see the world differently,” he said. He spoke of how the United States specifically, in a generation much younger than his, is seeing a rise in a new kind of immigrant literature that goes beyond Italian or Jewish immigration to immigration stories from around the world. “Whether it’s Jhumpa Lahiri from South Asia, or Junot Diaz from the Dominican Republic, or Nam Le from Vietnam or Yiyun Li from China, there is an enormous amount of new, cultural material brought into American literature and enriched the landscape. And although these people may see themselves as American writers, what they are doing is bringing stories from elsewhere in a completely new way. It has been exciting and inspirational, even for me, because I arrived from elsewhere and I still have stuff in my suitcases from other places,” Rushdie said.

On the lines of education, Rushdie also said that the idea of learning is to challenge what one knows. He said that considering the adversarial idea, or the idea that opposes what you believe, is a necessary part of the process. Quoting philosopher Edmund Burke, he added, “Our antagonist is our helper.”

Rushdie touched upon the topic of governments around the world retracting to an unfavorable nationalist discourse, including the United States, which in particular undermines the free press in a way that expresses an unwillingness to hear out voices of opposition or consider “the objective truth”. This was the theme of his public talk later that evening, where he made a call to writers and artists to keep fighting for the truth so as not to let authoritarian forces win. At the breakfast, Rushdie continued by saying that unexpected events, such as America’s presidency, had risen out of a “profound alienation of people from their leaders. “Nobody expected this presidency, including, one suspects, the President. He seems to find the job difficult. Harder than his previous job, the President said, as if that were a surprise,” Rushdie remarked.

Rushdie said there was a need to renew the sense of trust between the people and the system which he said had become “very strained if not completely broken.” “I do think is of concern is that one of the first steps of authoritarian rule is to undermine the free press, and that’s being done very deliberately. When people lose confidence in the free press, it makes life much easier for authoritarians. And the press, to its enormous credit, is working extremely hard to maintains its liberties,” the writer said. Rusdhie clarified, however, that the United States was by no means under a fascist regime, as is being said by certain sections of people, since the courts are still independent and so on.

Professor Klaus Milich, Director of the Montgomery Fellows Program, asked Rushdie what his view was on the current trend of emotionally-driven politics that calls for a term other than “politician” or “fascist”. Rushdie responded by saying that although the dialectic of history has to do with the clash of classes and socioeconomic forces, now, ideological forces are proving to be much more powerful than economic forces. “One of the things that we are seeing is the disproof of our collective wisdom about politics which has existed at least ever since Karl Marx, which is that economics is primary; people vote and act in their own economic interest. What’s being shown now is that economic forces are not primary and ideological forces can be much more powerful. Whether those ideological forces are in some cases religious, or bigotry, or even racism, those ideals can overpower even people’s sense of their own economic interest,” he said.

Returning to the notion of muting objective truths, Rushdie took the example of the slogan “Make America Great Again” and the nostalgia that is embedded within it. “But when was America great? How far back do we have to go for America to be great?” Rushdie said. He talked about England, where there is a nostalgia for an imagined England, where the country was independent, stood alone and had great power, dignity and authority. “What’s happening is that people are being sold a forced nostalgia, or nostalgia for a past that never really existed. So in some ways that’s behind these populist moves, they look back to an imagined paradise and nobody can ever tell you when that was,” Rushdie said.

“We have to rebuild the idea of the truth. The idea of the truth is under serious attack. And if people lose sense of there being such a thing as objective truth then you are in big trouble. And that’s why I think writers and journalists have a big responsibility, which is to try and reestablish that confidence amongst readers both with media and literature. The world is real. It isn’t merely a figment of the president’s imagination,” he added.

Rusdhie was hopeful that this trend is a short term phenomenon, and spoke of encouraging signs in Europe, event in the aftermath of Brexit, where populist forces were defeated. “First in Austria, then in the Netherlands, and then in France, populist forces were defeated,” the writer pointed out. He asserted that history “works on a scale that is even larger than human life” and it isn’t that people have reached their ability to improve society. “One thing you learn as a student of history is that history does very unexpected things. If we were sitting here in this room in 1989 and said that the Soviet Union would not exist by Christmas you would think I was mad, and yet that’s exactly what happened within the span of a few months. It seems as though the rate of change is accelerating, more than ever before. One has to be non-deterministic. You have to see that you are actually able to make changes,” Rushdie said.

He drew an analogy on the ability of people to cope to his childhood in India, where there was the looming scare of mass famine. “When I was growing up the population of India was 450 million. Now it’s 1.2 billion. It’s more than doubled, almost tripled. It used to be said back then that risk of mass famine was very high if the population kept increasing. Well the population has risen colossally, but there has been no mass famine. What’s happened is the ability to feed has increased as well. I’m not convinced by the idea that it is all downhill from here,” he said.

Responding to another question from Milich on whether the post-colonial world, or in Rushdie’s words “post-postcolonial” world, needed magic realism in literature, Rushdie said: "There is an argument now that the world has become so strange that realism is inadequate to represent it. There’s a better argument which is that the foundation of realist writing is that there’s an agreement between the writer and the reader. The writer writes in a way that he knows the reader will believe. When reality becomes an argument, when the consensus of ‘what is the case’ disintegrates, it becomes hard to say with confidence that your readers will read you and so you have a kind of fragmentation.”

“One of the problems with “magic realism” is that people only hear the first word,” Rushdie said. He pointed out that “surrealism” or “magic realism” becomes a way of writing metaphors, which does not necessarily mean a sense of escape from the world. “Kafka was in a way a magic realist. Bulgakov was a magic realist. That’s why I think the term “magic realism” best represents Latin American writers who collectively believe they have embarked on a project, like the French surrealist writers,” he said. Echoing his speech from 2015 at Dartmouth, Rushdie said, “Magic realism has always been around. Ever since human beings started telling stories they began fairy tale and folk tale and all of those were surrealists. It may be more natural to us to tell these fantastic tales as a way of understanding ourselves, than a more realistic one.”

You can follow Salman Rushdie on Twitter here and the Montgomery Fellows Program here.